Land of Opportunity: Tough Times in Land of Milk and Honey

Immigrant’s new adventures lead him to homestead in North Dakota in this land of opportunity.

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They called the United States the land of opportunity, "the Land of Milk and Honey," but soon found out it wasn't all roses. My folks came from Norway in the early 1900s. My dad came first with his brother for their new adventures in America. They settled in Minnesota, working at various jobs for awhile to make a few dollars. Soon they were anxious to go to North Dakota and homestead. My dad lived in a one-room shack for several years until he could get a piece of land, as did his brother. After buying a few acres, my dad got a hold of a few horses, cows, etc., and started a small farming operation.

A few years went by before he met a beautiful young lady who later would become my dear mother. She came to the United States all alone from the beautiful country of Norway. She said good-bye to her dad and sister, never to see them again. She sailed on a ship for three weeks, not knowing anybody and seasick much of the way. She did take her harmonica with her, and when she got too lonesome she'd go to her little cubbyhole room and play a few tunes. She was so musical and sang all the time. In Norway, she, her dad and sister always sang in a big choir. Perhaps that's why her six children were all musical, playing and entertaining in numerous places.

When she arrived in New York after sailing for three weeks, she got panicky. She couldn't speak English and really never knew whether she had taken the right train to North Dakota; apparently she and the train conductor used a lot of hand signs to communicate. She finally arrived at her destination: Columbus, North Dakota, where some friends from Norway met her. They had helped pay for her trip, and she was to work to pay them back. It was a terrible letdown for her coming to the flat state of North Dakota: poor water, no trees and gumbo all over. She worked at a hotel in town for a couple of years, where she eventually met my dad. They got married in 1909.

I still remember a lot of old-timers saying, "Can't understand why a pretty girl like her didn't find a fellow sooner."

They built a small house on the flat prairies of Dakota and raised six children. Times were really rough in the early days: they had to plant a garden and spuds, raise pigs for meat, cows for cream checks, etc., and chickens for eggs and meat. We had to make do with what we had. Food was simple and plain, no fancy pies or cakes and no frills.

Mother made plenty of quilts in the fall to keep us warm; it seemed as if the wind blew right through the house in those days. Straw mattresses were the thing then. Every fall my older brothers would lug the old mattresses over to the thresh pile and replace the old, ground-up straw with a new batch.

Having only a three-room house left us with little sleeping room, so my youngest brother had a little box with a straw mattress that fit under the older boys' bed during the daytime and pulled out from under the bed at night. It solved the problem.

My sister and I, being the youngest, always slept with our folks. It was very crowded to say the least, but always so cozy and warm. Mother always saw to it that we all had plenty of food on the table. She baked 19 loaves of bread a week; I still remember her huge wooden bread box full of good homemade bread.

As the years went by, my dad finally built a living room and bedrooms onto the small house. He always hitched up his horses and hauled the cream to a nearby town once a week for groceries and supplies. He also took a load of oats to town and had the guy at the mill grind it up for cattle feed. Horses were our main source of transportation; in winter it was the sled.

I remember my dad taking us to "reading for the minister" on Saturday mornings. In the summer my dad always walked to town for his leisure time and played cards with his friends at the cream station to win a few "chips."

During the "dirty '30s" there was no hay for the animals, so Dad always put up Russian thistle stocks for the cattle. There were no crops in the '30s either, and people were very poor. How we survived, I'll never know. I'll never forget those Depression years and how hard they were for my mother and father.

My mother and dad lived to be quite old. They finally moved off the farm to live in the town of Columbus, North Dakota, where they passed away in 1955 and 1958. Bless their hearts.

Olga Hanson
Columbus, North Dakota

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.